A Response to Amanda Marcotte on religion’s death throes

Amanda Marcotte got the memo.  Religion in America is dying, and the religion of bigotry is finding it hard to maintain its followership.

We liberal protestants have known institutional decline for about forty years.  Since Sgt. Pepper’s and Vietnam, our communities have slowly been devastated by all sorts of economic and social forces.

But it’s not the old order.  The old order she refers to is young.  It arose in reaction to liberal Protestantism’s social victories, especially around race.  Once, fundamentalism was considered by the elites a backwater worldview held by hicks and southerners.  Its theology was historically condemned by the church Catholic.  But after race was confronted institutionally in private schools by the federal goverment, Ralph Reed and his associates organized conservative churches into their current political force as a cohesive wing in the Republican Party.  Like Amanda, I look forward to its self-destruction.

Overall, however, I’m not as sanguine about what a godless country means.    For the American religion has also been diverse, sometimes thinly held, and pragmatic.  In particular, I’m thankful for liberal Protestantism, once a powerful part of American politics.

For at the Ohio Wesleyan Conference in March, 1942,  the Federal Council of Churches created the moral framework for the United Nations, the Marshall Plan, decolonization, and civil rights.   It’s leaders included industrialists, policy makers and heads of churches.  In England, the Malvern Conference gave the spiritual support for the modern British welfare state.  It is no coincidence that the most important successes of liberalism came with the support of powerful religious institutions.

Yes, I know.  Religion’s horrible.  Remind me, again, about the children’s crusade; the religious wars and the inquisition, Galileo’s excommunication, and the Scopes trial.    But I’ve yet to read a serious scholar who argued they weren’t also about resources, personality and urbanization.

Yet while the power of religious institutions has declined, citizenship has not improved.   The country pays lip service to Martin Luther King, but the plutocrats read Ayn Rand.  The elites themselves have been delivered from even paying lip service to Christian virtue, jettisoning the justice of any kind of restraint.    While the patriarchy has diminished, evolutionary psychology is now the faith of young men.   While liberal religion is mocked, it has been replaced with a much more powerful faith in tax-cuts.   And believing in tax-cuts is just that:  a faith, a faith that is more powerful than the burdens of Christian conviction.

I’m skeptical that this is improvement.

The collapse of religious institutions will not necessarily mean enlightenment or justice.  Instead we may be rewarded with competitive cynical technocrats, shielded by a cool irreverence, disinterested in any sort of ideals save the power of the market or the military.  I’m skeptical that we should be cheery about the Brave New World that may replace it.

We remain creatures who need hope, meaning and a just imagination to limit the power of those who consider the restraint of religion arduous.   Religion provided that language, however insufficiently its institutions followed its own rules.  The dismantlement of the sacred and reverence may merely mean more people who worship consumer culture.

Surely, the end of ignorance means the capitulation of some traditional religious teaching.  Let those particular traditions whither on the vine.   But it will not mean that superstition and illogic has been defeated.  Nor will what comes next be an explosion of peace, charity, or wisdom.   Those will remain rare, the narrow road, the eye of the needle.  Fortunately, we need only a mustard seed’s worth for the world to keep moving, for redemption to remain on the horizon.

I trust that the churches may still, in perhaps a much more modest form, cultivate apostles who can speak truthfully, be charitable to their opponents, be open to conflict, and willing to change their mind when proven wrong.    Perhaps we can dispense with ideology, and return to seeking what wisdom remains in our precarious, broken, and imperfect world.

The Rev. Canon Andrew M. L. Dietsche elected

On November 19th, The Rev. Canon Andy Dietsche was elected the Bishop coadjutor of New York.  As a priest in the diocese, I believe that the Holy Spirit, through the procedures of the church, its clergy and laity, have spoken.

Mr. Dietsche is a wonderful preacher, a hard worker, a conscientious pastor, and a wise priest.  I do not doubt that he will be an attentive and popular bishop.  He may be the bishop that New York needs at this time.

The Canon was the only priest known by the entirety of the diocese.  When a priest was sick, he was there.  If there was a conflict, he was there.  When I was having trouble with my deacon, he was there.  When there was an installation, he preached and taught.    He was doing what many priests want bishops to do.  He gathered the loyalty and affection of many priests in the diocese, especially those who had felt far from its center.

The other candidates were at a severe disadvantage.  There was no reason for the other clergy, in any serious block, to trust them.    There was little time to massage the consciences of the talented but reticent, so perhaps only the ambitious seemed to apply.  And so the clergy made judgments based on the best impressions they could have made.

However, the impressions which I heard, I believe, were just that:  impressions.  They illustrated the limits of our current system of selection.  One friend argued that the Rev. Canon Tracy Lind, who I preferred, had answers that were “too perfect.”  But when has perfection been a problem?  Harmon was considered “too young.”  Really?  Might we not need a young, energetic priest?  Eaton was “too polished.” Will not that be helpful with the media or participating in the councils of the church? Others asked if Dietsche was “more of the same.”  Which same?  Can’t a staff member learn what not to do?  Even clergy don’t know what they want in a bishop, or have a clear idea about what a good bishop would look like or their responsibilities.  Perhaps tall and handsome would be enough for some, theologically sophisticated for others, a social justice prophet for a few, but with the administrative skills of a top executive.

This may be a problem.

The skills, nay virtues, that we need in a bishop are listed in scripture: but these are variations of the same as what anyone would want in a philosopher-king:  good judgment, a conviction about Christ, a vision.   Many priests are aware that when priests or laity seem to want the ill-defined qualia of charisma, they make a mistake.  And so we went with the familiar.

We are in an age where many priests do not know one another, except through seminary, shared retreats, or simply long tenures.  We do not casually ask new priests out to lunch.  We do not attend each other’s gatherings.  We are less likely to go to one another’s social events.  Most of the clubs that were for priests have dissolved.   For this reason, I think, we selected a talented priest who will be a good bishop because, we think we know who he will be with a mitre.  But the pool of candidates who we know as a body is small.  And we never know how the office will change someone until they fill the office.

I cannot presume that the Holy Spirit had my intuitions at heart, nor do I think that the Holy Spirit has any necessary interest in the growth of the Episcopal Church.  I do not expect that the Holy Spirit desires that our lives be particularly easy, or that its reasons will be clear or obvious.  That said, Andrew is a trustworthy person who is sensitive, good humored and attentive.  We could have done much worse.  It reminds me when Bishop Robinson was elected.  I don’t think he was the person who really filled the diocese of New Hampshire’s needs, but perhaps the nation and world needed him in a different way.

I remain perplexed as to what we want or need from our spiritual leaders.  I remain unsure if any person could fit the bill if we drafted a list of qualities or talents.  I suspect that even our Lord wouldn’t.  And so I wish the Canon Godspeed in the next stage of his ministry.   The episcopacy remains a role I wouldn’t wish upon my closest friends.  Although they do get an awesome pad in Manhattan.

God Bless the Diocese of New York.  Lord have mercy upon Canon Dietsche.